The Tea Party Succeeded, but Not at Policy. WSJ April 15, 2019
Despite political wins, the debt has doubled and ObamaCare was never repealed.
By Jessica Anderson
‘They’re not hearing us.” With these words a protester in North Carolina summed up the sentiment behind the birth of the tea party. The date was April 15, 2009, when as many as half a million people joined more than 500 rallies across the country—and Washington took note.
The tea-party movement is now 10 years old. Has it been a success?
It’s tempting to see only disappointments. The movement coalesced around opposition to the $11 trillion national debt and ObamaCare. By focusing on these issues, the tea party orchestrated a Republican wave in the 2010 midterms. But while plenty of seats in Congress changed hands, federal policy barely shifted.
Ten years later, the national debt has doubled to $22 trillion—and its growth is speeding up, not slowing down. Despite Republican promises to repeal and replace ObamaCare, the law is still in place, minus the penalty for the individual mandate. Meanwhile, Democrats can’t wait to regain the White House and Senate so they can enact single-payer health care under the name Medicare for All.
Yet the tea party has built a vast, long-term activist infrastructure. Members were welcomed by—and gave momentum to—the larger conservative movement that elected Ronald Reagan nearly three decades earlier. After a tough eight years under the George W. Bush administration, many conservatives saw the tea party as a chance to push the GOP to the right. Conservative organizations such as my own quickly began to train tea-party activists to make them more effective, from social-media tactics to community outreach to get-out-the-vote drives.
This infrastructure flourishes today. Tens of thousands of activists meet regularly. Instead of street-corner protests and shouting matches at town halls, tea-party activists now frequently meet with congressmen in their district and Washington offices. The activists have left their mark on the legislature. The recent bipartisan discharge petition to force a House vote on the Born Alive Abortion Survivor Protection Act is one of the latest examples of conservative politicians taking up tea-party-inspired practices. It’s a handful of signatures short of success.
The tea party also has many champions in public office. Sens. Mike Lee, Steve Daines, Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz and Tom Cotton produce a stream of innovative, conservative bills such as the JOBS for Success Act and the Higher Education Reform and Opportunity Act. The House has well-known champions like Jim Jordan, Mark Meadows and other members of the Freedom Caucus. These and other leaders pull policy to the right. This dynamic didn’t exist before 2010.
Outside Congress, tea-party enthusiasm swept Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin into office in 2015. Movement stalwart Ron DeSantis is now governor of Florida. Mike Pence, who worked to advance tea-party principles before the movement existed, is vice president.
Every election cycle, the tea party continues to inspire new candidates to run for office. It also put wind in Donald Trump’s sails in 2016, although he divided the movement during the primaries. Mr. Trump enjoyed widespread tea-party support and harnessed the movement’s anger with the establishment. He now advocates many of the tea party’s causes, as shown by his recent refusal to defend ObamaCare in court and repeated calls to drain the swamp.
In a sense, the tea party has never been stronger—and it’s not going away. Grass-roots conservative organizations like ours are witnessing new excitement and interest to fight Democrats’ growing embrace of socialism. Few issues unify—and anger—the movement more.
The tea party’s name may have faded from headlines, but its ideas haven’t. Republicans and Democrats must contend with the movement and the conservative vision it reinvigorated. Whether they know it or not, they’re still listening to the tea party.
Ms. Anderson, a former associate director for intergovernmental affairs at the Office of Management and Budget, is vice president of Heritage Action for America.